Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- Have defenses figured out how to stop Lamar Jackson?
-- A player who is living up to his contract after getting PAID before the season.
But first, a look at who's to blame for the Patriots' striking decline ...
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Do your job!
The phrase hangs on a sign in the New England Patriots' facility. It has been Bill Belichick's calling card since his arrival in New England at the outset of this millennium, with the head coach constantly hammering home this mantra to players, coaches and staff members. It's a call for accountability that has defined the Patriots' two decades of domination. Observers envy New England's ability to avoid excuses in the face of adversity and compete for the Lombardi Trophy, year in and year out.
That's why my ears perked up when I heard Belichick try to explain away the 2020 Pats' disappointing 2-5 start.
"Look, we paid Cam Newton $1 million. I mean, it's obvious we didn't have any money. It's nobody's fault," Belichick said Monday on his weekly WEEI radio spot. "That's what we did the last six] years. We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth and played in an AFC Championship Game. This year, we had less to work with. [It's not an excuse -- it's just a fact."
While it's quite surprising to hear these kinds of sentiments come out of his mouth, Belichick is absolutely correct in his assessment of New England's current roster. These Patriots lack blue-chip pieces across the board, and the talent disparity between New England and the heavyweights around the league is one of the reasons why the team is spiraling toward mediocrity.
But honestly, Belichick has no one to blame more than himself. The future Hall of Fame has not done his job on the personnel front.
This team is short on star power and the new quarterback hasn't been able to mask the team's deficiencies like his predecessor. To be fair, Tom Brady played with a better supporting cast in 2019 than the one surrounding Newton this year. TB12 had the luxury of leaning on one of the NFL's top defenses, with Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore enjoying a career campaign. Although the overall talent on the 2019 Patriots' roster still fell short of the championship standard long espoused to me by a pair of Hall of Fame executives -- Ron Wolf and Bill Polian each told me that title teams feature 10-12 blue-chip players -- Brady and a solid core of veterans found a way to guide New England to a 12-4 record.
But in the wake of free agency attrition and COVID-19 opt-outs, the Patriots' talent deficiencies have been laid bare for the football world to see. New England is finally feeling the effects of repeated draft-day failures, with Belichick unable to scheme around the team's lack of speed, athleticism and playmaking ability on each side of the ball.
With a lack of star power and overall talent, the Patriots can't hang when they're unable to strictly play the game on their terms. In fact, the talent disparity between the Pats and most of the playoff contenders in the AFC makes it hard to consider them legitimate threats to make the postseason tournament -- even with the expanded playoff field.
I know New Englanders don't want to face this reality after a 20-year run of dominance, but the Patriots' descent into AFC irrelevance could last a while based on their personnel woes. The team has not sufficiently mitigated the exits of several key contributors over the past few years. New England has failed to acquire and develop young talent. Honestly, the overall lack of depth and talent on the roster is shocking -- though not exactly surprising once you review the team's recent draft history.
New England hasn't drafted a single Pro Bowler since 2013 (Jamie Collins), and it's hard to identify any potential stars on the horizon. Take a look at the Patriots' last five draft hauls:
2020: S Kyle Dugger (Round 2/No. 37 overall), LB Josh Uche (2/60), LB Anfernee Jennings (3/87), TE Devin Asiasi (3/91), TE Dalton Keene (3/101), K Justin Rohrwasser (5/159), OG Mike Onwenu (6/182), OL Justin Herron (6/195), LB Cassh Maluia (6/204), C Dustin Woodard (7/230).
2019: WR N'Keal Harry (Round 1/No. 32 overall), CB Joejuan Williams (2/45), LB Chase Winovich (3/77), RB Damien Harris (3/87), OT Yodny Cajuste (3/101), OG Hjalte Froholdt (4/118), QB Jarrett Stidham (4/133), DT Byron Cowart (5/159), P Jake Bailey (5/163), CB Ken Webster (7/252).
2018: OT Isaiah Wynn (Round 1/No. 23 overall), RB Sony Michel (1/31), CB Duke Dawson (2/56), LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (5/143), LB Christian Sam (6/178), WR Braxton Berrios (6/210), QB Danny Etling (7/219), CB Keion Crossen (7/243), TE Ryan Izzo (7/250).
2017: DE Derek Rivers (Round 3/No. 83 overall), OT Antonio Garcia (3/85), DE Deatrich Wise (4/131), OT Conor McDermott (6/211).
2016: CB Cyrus Jones (Round 2/No. 60 overall), OG Joe Thuney (2/78), QB Jacoby Brissett (3/91), DT Vincent Valentine (3/96), WR Malcolm Mitchell (4/112), LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (6/208), LB Elandon Roberts (6/214); C Ted Karras (6/221), WR Devin Lucien (7/225).
Over the past five drafts, the Patriots have acquired around a dozen or so players that are currently starters/key contributors. Considering the lack of elite talents or blue-chip prospects in that group, are we really surprised that New England has taken a big step back without TB12 and a host of veterans sustaining the Patriot Way?
That's why we need to hold Belichick's feet to the fire for vastly underperforming as a de facto general manager despite his unrivaled success as a head coach. He's done such a poor job of replenishing the roster with young talent in recent years that his exceptional tactical ability can't bail him out. Now, it'd be foolish to completely bury Belichick's Patriots. The coach can still come up with a game plan that'll allow the Pats to work around some deficiencies and win some games. But Belichick needs to take a long, hard look at how his organization goes about the draft process. Because right now, it's not working.
Reportedly, the Patriots' extensively sift through eligible players until their draft board consists of 75 names. That prospect menu is significantly smaller than most other organizations, whose general managers prefer a big board of 125-150 players. New England routinely weeds out players who aren't deemed as good fits and focus on bringing in guys who possess the requisite intelligence, versatility and playing ability that Belichick covets in each position.
That's why Belichick must fall on the sword for failing to bring in stars and starters with his top picks. He's intimately involved in the process. He knows exactly what he wants at each position and has the autonomy to pick whatever player he believes best fits. He is the judge and jury on each pick, so he has to take accountability for New England's draft flops in recent years.
It's impossible to dispute the Patriots' results under Belichick, with six Lombardi Trophies in the past 20 years. But the lack of blue-chip players currently on the roster should prompt Belichick and Co. to rethink their methods for talent acquisition.
Considering how the Patriots have created a championship culture with everyone held accountable for their performance in their respective roles, it's about time for someone to call out Belichick for failing to do his job as a team-builder.
DINK AND DUNK
DK Metcalf's meteoric rise: Watching Metcalf torch defender after defender, many continue to question how the wide receiver fell to the bottom of the second round in the 2019 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder has emerged as arguably the best big-play receiver in football, with comparisons to Calvin Johnson and Terrell Owens spawning from casual fans and experts alike. His quick ascension up the NFL ranks has everyone asking the same basic question:
How did the NFL scouting community miss so badly on a big-time prospect with five-star tools and physical traits?
Despite his impressive makeup and some remarkable NFL Scouting Combine numbers for a man of his size (4.33-second 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical jump, 27 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press), Metcalf was a hard evaluation due to his role in college and his injury history.
Metcalf missed significant time in his three years at Ole Miss due to health issues, including a season-ending neck injury during his final year at the school. Considering he also had a foot injury that resulted in a medical redshirt, it's understandable if a poor medical grade led to his demotion or removal from some teams' draft boards.
On the field, the big-bodied pass catcher certainly flashed big-play potential, with 67 catches for 1,228 receiving yards (18.3 per catch) and 14 touchdowns in a 21-game college career. He could take the top off as a vertical threat with explosive speed, quickness and acceleration. That said, by the end of his Ole Miss career, Metcalf was far from polished. He was a straight-line receiver who displayed some stiffness as a route runner, particularly when he was instructed to run routes that didn't keep him on the move. Those concerns were exacerbated at the combine when he clocked a lethargic 7.38-second time in the three-cone drill, which is designed to measure change-of-direction quickness and agility.
With Metcalf also playing a secondary role in the Rebels' passing game behind A.J. Brown, there were legitimate questions over his potential to emerge as a WR1 in the NFL.
That's why I chalk up Metcalf's success to a fringe blue-chip prospect being placed in the right system for his talents. The Seahawks put the receiver in a role that plays to his strengths as a straight-line playmaker. Metcalf is frequently targeted on go routes (he's the NFL leader with 266 yards gained on the pattern) and in-breaking routes (slants, crossers and posts). Those routes don't require the big-bodied receiver to make stop-start cuts, which demand exceptional balance and body control.
In addition, he has been placed on a roster with quarterback Russell Wilson, who is an improvisational wizard and one of the deep ball throwers in the NFL. As a result, Metcalf is able to play his game within a system that highlights his skills as a vertical playmaker. Metcalf's 331 receiving yards on deep passes (20-plus air yards) are the most in the league, per Next Gen Stats.
In hindsight, yes, Metcalf obviously should have gone higher in the draft. But the scouting community's collective error was rooted in the kind of extenuating circumstances that would've made it difficult for any decision-maker to pull the trigger in Round 1.
Miami's No-Name Defense 2.0: Somewhere in football heaven, Don Shula is cracking a smile watching these Miami Dolphins. The NFL's winningest head coach won a pair of Super Bowls, with the first title capping off the only perfect season in league history. Those 1972 Dolphins had some star power on offense, but the top-ranked defense was a collection of anonymous, hard-working football players. The unit recorded three shutouts during a 17-0 march to immortality, never allowing more than 24 points in a game.
While I'm not ready to proclaim the 2020 Dolphins title contenders, Brian Flores' defense is quietly yielding the fewest points in the league (18.6 per game) without a household name in the lineup. This is a unit full of cast-offs, misfits and unheralded playmakers executing at a high level within a "snowflake" defensive scheme that changes weekly based on the opponent.
Surveying Miami's depth chart, there aren't any truly transcendent talents dotting the lineup, yet the Dolphins are stifling opponents by ranking top three in takeaways and third-down percentage. This ascension is part of a trend that coincides with the team posting a 9-7 mark over the past 16 games, with the defense holding opponents to a 22.3 average during that span.
Byron Jones has some name recognition, given his first-round pedigree, tenure with the Cowboys and enormous free-agent contract. And fellow corner Xavien Howard made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and then got paid. For the most part, though, this D is fueled by anonymous playmakers like DE Emmanuel Ogbah, LB Jerome Baker, LB Elandon Roberts, CB Nik Needham, S Bobby McCain and S Eric Rowe. Consequently, it might be time for Dolphins fans to dust off a nickname that's linked to the franchise's glory days: the No-Name Defense.
1) Are defenses exposing Lamar Jackson's Achilles' heel? Whenever a young quarterback performs at an elite level, defensive coordinators around the league devote the offseason to spotting potential flaws in his game. After watching the reigning MVP through the first couple months of the 2020 season, it appears that teams have exposed his weaknesses as a passer by employing more zone coverage.
Jackson has already been sacked on 13 dropbacks versus zone coverage, tied for fifth-most in the league, per Pro Football Focus. He was sacked 14 times when facing zone coverage all of last season (tied for 23rd most). The increase in the rate of negative plays is part of a trend that has seen his completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating decline after facing more zone coverage this season compared with 2019.
Opponents are playing zone on 67.7 percent of his dropbacks this season, with Jackson posting a 65.1 percent completion rate and a 3:3 TD-INT ratio for a 90.6 passer rating on those throws. In 2019, Jackson faced zone on 61.8 percent of his dropbacks and his numbers against the coverage were significantly better: 69.2 percent completion rate, 11:5 TD-INT ratio and a 99.7 passer rating.
When I spoke to a former NFL defensive coordinator about the benefits of playing more zone coverage against a mobile quarterback like Jackson, he told me that zone enables the defense to keep more eyes on the quarterback. This forces passers to anticipate open windows with defenders reacting quicker to throws, and it can create some hesitancy in the mind of the quarterback if the coverage look changes from pre-snap to post-snap.
Jackson struggled with his anticipation and timing as a thrower during his college career at Louisville and remains a streaky passer as a pro. The Ravens have enjoyed success building a aerial attack that masks his flaws by utilizing play-action, but warts on Jackson's game are more apparent when he's forced into a dropback passing game, particularly against opponents intent on making him throw against a zone.
And Jackson can expect to see plenty of zone coverage from Indianapolis on Sunday. Colts coordinator Matt Eberflus' crew has played zone on 78.7 percent of its coverage snaps (third-highest rate in the NFL, per PFF). Indy also is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (8) and leads the league in passer rating allowed (76.1) in the coverage. The drop, rally and tackle defense enables the Colts to limit big plays from the opponent while challenging quarterbacks to exhibit patience and discipline from the pocket.
It's worth noting that the increased use of zone coverage seems to have also helped opponents limit Jackson's effectiveness as a runner. His scramble yards per attempt are way down compared with 2019, falling from 10.5 yards per rush last season to 6.7 yards per rush in 2020. With more eyes on No. 8 at all times, opposing defenses are able to close quickly when he flees the pocket.
While the Ravens are still in the thick of the playoff race at 5-2, the star quarterback hasn't been at the top of his game this year. How well Jackson adjusts to facing more zone coverage will not only determine whether he re-emerges as a top-five player, but it could decide the Ravens' ultimate fate in the 2020 season.
2) Alvin Kamara: Saints' MVP? If you're wondering how the Saints have survived the absence of Michael Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders) without skipping a beat, look no further than the presence of No. 41 in the backfield.
Kamara is the only player in the NFL with 400-plus rushing and 500-plus receiving yards. In fact, he joins Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk as the only players in the Super Bowl era to tally 400-plus rushing yards and 450-plus receiving yards in the first seven games of a season.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, Kamara's back to being an explosive hybrid playmaker following an injury-riddled 2019 campaign. As a slippery runner with outstanding vision, balance, body control and stop-start quickness, he is an effective runner between the tackles or on the edges. As a polished route runner with A-plus hands and ball skills, he is a mismatch option in the passing game with the capacity to torch linebackers or safeties in coverage. Kamara's versatility makes it nearly impossible for opponents to neutralize him, particularly when Sean Payton taps into his playmaking skills as a pass catcher.
Kamara is thriving in the RB1/WR2 role that Le'Veon Bell described a few years ago while campaigning for a contract that he felt would better reflect his value. The Saints rewarded Kamara, a three-time Pro Bowler and the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year, with a five-year, $75 million extension before the start of this season, validating his importance as a playmaker.
The fourth-year pro is living up to the deal, leading the NFL in targets (52), receptions (44), yards (451), and touchdowns (3) when aligned in the backfield, according to Next Gen Stats. He has caught 23 of 28 targets for 184 yards and two scores against linebackers in coverage, per PFF, but has also enjoyed success against cornerbacks (14 receptions on 14 targets for 78 yards) and safeties (14 receptions on 16 targets for 231 yards and a score).
Without Thomas and Sanders on the field to stretch the defense and create other matchup problems, the production from Kamara is absolutely shocking based on the lack of established weapons around him. Sure, Taysom Hill is a nice complementary player and Jared Cook is a solid tight end, but opponents are designing defenses to minimize Kamara's contributions. The Saints' offensive production has hinged on No. 41 winning as a runner/receiver and he has certainly proven his worth, keeping the Saints afloat heading into a pivotal Week 9 showdown with the rival Buccaneers.